Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.
How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.
But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.
I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.
But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”
In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.
So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.
Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??
So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?
Media attention is hovering around Steve Chalke’s article (due to be published in an abridged form in the next issue of Christianity magazine) in which he declares his support for faithful, permanent, exclusive gay relationships. The ‘extended’ article is here. For reasons of pastoral care – to protect deeply vulnerable, at-risk people – Steve takes the argument beyond exegesis to hermeneutics.
I have to say that on a first reading not every part of his biblical argument convinces me. Even his dear friend Tony Campolo writes sympathetically, but still committed to a conservative position.
Why do I think it’s too much to hope for that the result of this will be a thoughtful, respectful conversation, one which is more about light than heat? Please, Christian world, prove me wrong.
UPDATE: the Christianity magazine material is now online. In addition to Steve Chalke’s piece, there is a ‘taking the temperature‘ article by editor Ruth Dickinson, and a conservative response by theologian Greg Downes: this is the extended version. There is also a brief response from Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance, with the promise of a longer response later and a theological one from Steve Holmes of their Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission.
I have changed my views in the sexuality debate.
If you’ve known me for many years, this post might surprise you. If the 1993 Methodist Conference debate on sexuality had approved of homosexual relationships, I would have resigned as a probationer minister. Had our Pilgrimage Of Faith report in the mid-2000s approved the blessing of civil partnerships on Methodist premises, I would have had a serious problem of conscience. I would have regarded such decisions as tantamount to apostasy.
So I’m now supporting the gay rights agenda? No.
Are you confused? Join the club, and read on.
The more I watch the debate among Christians since the Government announced its consultation on gay marriage, the more I am concerned about the tone we are setting. Honourable exceptions granted, this post is an appeal for the exercise of Christian love and respect between those of opposing opinions. This is the area where I am working hard to change, not least by spending much more time reading different opinions and befriending people with opposing views. There are several areas where both sides need to listen to each other.
Both parties have launched petitions in support of their causes, and neither one deserves my support. Can we get past the sloganeering, please? The ‘traditional’ Coalition For Marriage begins with sloppy language:
Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman.
So they haven’t heard of polygamy, even where kings of Israel take multiple wives. I agree with them that marriage is the exclusive life-long union of one man and one woman, but it hasn’t always been like that, and a campaign that can’t get its facts right from the outset is dodgy. The Coalition For Equal Marriageis equal in sloppiness. It starts,
I support the right of two people in love to get married, regardless of gender. It’s only fair.
They don’t answer the traditionalist point about the legal equality to marriage that civil partnerships give. They don’t say why ‘it’s only fair’. The Reformed theologian Mike Bird, in commenting on the similar debate in Australia, wonders what distinctions rule gay marriage in and polyamory out. Please, then, can both parties think harder? Clear thinking and expression are important here.
In my native Methodism, the debate is tainted over thirty years by the ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ report that reached Conference in 1982 (I think). It listed six grounds on which Christians discerned truth, ending notoriously with ‘The spirit of the age’, which was then used to trump traditional interpretations of biblical teaching. It gave the evangelical movement in Methodism (and please note in the current debate it isn’t as simple as evangelicals versus liberals any more) fuel to claim that support for homosexual practice was opposition to Scripture. Therefore anyone who takes such a view is heretical. Still it is assumed by the great majority of evangelical Methodists that the Bible is clear on human sexuality: one man and one woman exclusively for life, and chastity outside of such relationships.
More widely, the public split ten years ago between the Evangelical Alliance and Courage made it look like the only ‘biblical’ position on this was opposition to homosexual practice.
However, what is different in the debate now is that those in favour of committed gay relationships are interacting much more seriously with the Scriptures. In this I include Christians of various denominations. Twenty years ago I don’t think you would have had an organisation like Accepting Evangelicals, founded by Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst. He won’t remember me, but we crossed over at theological college by a year. If you want charismatic evangelical credentials, Benny can supply them: he was not long back from serving in Hong Kong with Jackie Pullinger when I met him in Bristol. But he believes that support for gay marriage can be held with integrity alongside a commitment to the authority of the Bible.
However, in my assessment there are strengths and weaknesses in both sides’ biblical interpretation. The traditional view states that every scriptural reference to homosexual practice is negative (quite true), but those campaigning for change say that these reflect particular circumstances, such as abusive relationships and gay prostitution (as in the unusual Greek words used by Paul in 1 Corinthians), and that none of them reflects the contemporary notion of committed homosexual relationships.
I have to say I think that’s (only) partly right. For example, go to a moving website such as Reluctant Journey, run by George Hopper, an elderly Methodist Local Preacher who became persuaded of the case for change, and who has sought to become a Christian friend to gay people. In his analysis of the biblical material, he argues that the centurion’s servant who was healed by Jesus was most likely his master’s gay partner. That suggests some level of commitment, and therefore unwittingly contradicts the pro-gay stance.
At this point my personality traits kick in, hoping to resolve the problem, but they don’t help. You see, I’m one who goes for the wood not the trees, the big picture not the fine details – I’m ‘N’ not ‘S’ in Myers Briggs terms. So rather than get caught up in atomistic discussions of individual verses or even words, I ask where the overall trajectory is leading us. Even then I can’t resolve it. The foundational principle for the biblical discussion in both Jesus and Paul is Genesis 2:24, which grounds everything in heterosexual terms:
For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
On the other hand, Jesus – who makes no comments about homosexuality – shows radical inclusion to social outcasts. You could argue it either way. Perhaps what we need is for people from both groups to sit down together rather than throw theological grenades.
I suspect science is becoming less relevant to the debate. Every now and again the media will publicise some story about a scientific basis for sexual orientation. This seems to have some populist appeal on the naïve ‘If it’s scientific it must be true’ basis. None of these has ever convinced traditionalists. A doctrine of original sin is usually deployed to this effect. Moreover, as the American Baptist theologian Roger Olson recently argued that a scientific ‘is’ doesn’t make for a behavioural ‘ought’.
Until recently such scientific evidence has been used in support of gay rights.
However now even such a vocal campaigner as Peter Tatchell has admitted that the evidence is rather more fluid. I think I am right in saying (but have not found the link) to say that his line has become ‘Never mind science, this is a human right’. Please either correct me if I am wrong or let me know where he said this.
All of which makes some of the arguments over Anglican Mainstream’s use of controversial psychiatrists to oppose homosexuality rather irrelevant. And besides, even if they were to host a conference with a psychiatrist whose reputation could not be argued to be tarnished by their opponents, essentially their position in using psychiatry seems to be that homosexual orientation is a disorder. If it is, then it is a medical issue, not a moral one.
So what is the basis for deciding what’s right and wrong in sexuality? What it all comes down to is, ‘How do we know that we know?’ In other words, to give it its technical word, epistemology, that is, the study of knowledge.
The traditional view takes the teaching of Scripture and makes the case I have described. Those seeking change used to put human reason more highly but that is now vulnerable. Some of the argument in the church is about differing interpretations of Scripture, particularly about which of the diverse elements of the Bible take priority, as well as the questions of translation and context.
Beyond that lies the ‘secular’ argument of human rights that is such a strong narrative in society. It seems to be based on an assumption that what two consenting adults do in private is nobody else’s business, just so long as it is not harmful. Furthermore, it is influenced by a society that has downgraded the notions of responsibility and duty in favour of personal fulfilment.
And I do believe it is correct to call this a ‘secular’ argument. It is essentially premised upon the ideas of personal sovereignty and consumerism. Whatever view we take as Christians, we cannot get sucked in by these. Personal sovereignty contradicts the notion that Jesus is Lord. The consumerist attitude of personal fulfilment stands against sacrifice. And in passing, I note that the Church has not only asked homosexual people not to fulfil their feelings, she has asked many single women to do the same. For given both the teaching that Christians should only marry within the faith and the fact of female predominance in Church, many single women, not finding a life partner in Christian circles have seen it as their duty to stay celibate. Whether you agree with the teaching or not, at heart both parties have been called to make difficult and painful sacrifices.
Ours should be a conviction based on the big themes of the Gospel – a good Creator, who begins to make all things new in the wake of fallenness and brokenness, One who is seen supremely in his Son, a God of grace, truth and love. Which leads to my final thought.
A story: I used to take some students on placement with me from a Bible college. One team led a midweek discussion group based on Nicky Gumbel’s book ‘Searching Issues’, which he wrote in response to the most commonly raised objections to Christianity raised on the Alpha Course. One of those topics was homosexuality, and the original chapter is now available as a separate booklet. Gumbel takes a traditional view of the subject.
During a debrief, I asked the students how they got on. ‘We told them the biblical view,’ said one. And I thought, ‘Oh no, you didn’t.’ Because by ‘the biblical view’ I knew they only meant, ‘what actions are right and wrong’. I said, ‘You didn’t give them a full biblical view if you didn’t start from the position of God’s unconditional love for all people.’
My spontaneous reaction that day is still a touchstone for me, especially because I am aware there are people on both sides (sorry to keep using that language, but I fear it’s true) who are hurting. I have gay friends who have suffered hurt, rejection and bullying. I have theologically conservative friends who are worried that the Gospel and mission are at stake here. Add to them the single women I mentioned above, of course.
The Christian Church, then, needs a huge dose of love to work through this matter, and I expressed my concern about the tone of the debate in my introduction. That’s the essence of my appeal here. I don’t know, but I wonder whether we will work ourselves through to the kind of place that James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, described a few years ago, to the consternation of many fellow evangelicals. His Presidential Address of March 2010 calls for ‘diversity without enmity’. He believes that the differing convictions on this subject are analogous to the differences Christians hold on subjects such as the just war and pacifism.
Is his proposal possible or desirable? What do you think? Or should the Church stick to one particular position? Indeed, would Jones’ proposal itself lead not to co-existence but to a singular conclusion?
Just one final word. I am happy to have comments from people of whatever persuasion, but in the spirit of this post I will watch for the tone of comments. Please, no labelling of people as homophobes or unbelievers. Let’s see if we can demonstrate love in the tone of our contributions.
Today, I received an email today from the Evangelical Alliance (to which I belong). Its main business was to promote their Christmas message, but it trailed other things, too. One was the latest snippet from their ‘21st Century Evangelicals‘ project. This was on political engagement. Here’s what it said:
The latest in the Alliance’s 21st Century Evangelicals research series looks at the question of how Christians are communicating as the world changes, bringing new technologies, new media and new ways in which we speak and listen to the world around us. The research shows that Christians are engaging in politics to a far greater degree than the average British citizen, and their weapon of choice is social media.
Clearly they’re pleased with evangelicals being more politically engaged than most citizens. That in principle is good. There’s just one problem. Did they mean to use the word ‘weapon’? Did that deliberately convey a confrontational approach to politics by evangelicals? Was it an unwitting testimony to the way many of us in the evangelical tradition campaign politically – as badly as the mainstream politicians we criticise? Was it just accidental, in that they happened upon the familiar phrase ‘weapon of choice’?
Let’s hope it was just an accident. Because ‘our fight is not against flesh and blood’.
It’s not what you know, it’s Who you know – Marijke Hoek on Christian approaches to tackling social inequality.
No, not that one.
I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.
Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.
Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.
In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.
It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.
I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!
Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.
My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.
Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.
So the UK General Election will be on 6th May, as expected. In terms of Christian responses, Churches Together In Britain and Ireland has a dedicated site. The Evangelical Alliance and CARE have set up My Manifesto on Facebook and Twitter. Among my blogging friends, Paul Martin has written an eloquent post in which he calls for a preferential option for the poor. Peter Kirk discusses the Westminster Declaration, issued on Sunday by thirty largely well known Christian leaders, mostly (but not exclusively) from an evangelical background.
The latter stands for so many things both Peter and I believe in, yet there are concerns. It is pro-life, it favours options for the poor and unjustly treated and it upholds the sanctity of marriage. Yet the areas where it calls for Christian conscience to be protected are purely in the areas of what one might call ‘personal morality’ – the sexuality and sanctity of life areas. Peter thinks this is stilted, and I have sympathies with him in that view.
For example, if you hold a conservative view on sexuality, then none of the three major British political parties supports you any more. Labour has pioneered controversial legislation in this area. David Cameron for the Conservatives told Attitude magazine that the Archbishop of Canterbury should sort his church out on the issue. The Liberal Democrats have favoured gay rights for a long time, and in the recent controversy over the Christian owners of a B& B who would not accept a booking from a gay couple. the LD spokesperson Chris Huhne described anyone who believed gay relationships were wrong as a ‘bigot’. If political preferences are drawn on this issue, there is no safe port. We are a minority, and this is what happens. We need to campaign for our views, but have to be careful about a Christendom-flavoured stridency on the issue, and that is what worries me about the tone of the Westminster Declaration: it sounds like militant demands.
(I recognise, of course, there are several friends who read this blog who do not see sexuality this way. I do not propose to argue the rights and wrongs of different views here, I simply state that I have never been convinced by the arguments of those who wish to show a different conclusion from the biblical texts. Sometimes I wish I could – it would make life easier in today’s society – but I’m not.)
However, the Christian vote should surely never be on a single issue, but on a range. Christians of varying persuasions are often good at majoring on just one or two issues, not the big picture. Who will do the best good for the country, without us believing any messianic pretensions the parties may purport to offer? That’s a thorny question indeed.
Not only that, Christians bring the issue of character alongside technical competence and policies. Paul Martin calls us to examine the character of the local candidates – he doesn’t want simply those who will be cheerleaders for the national leaders. I sympathise with that, and especially at a time when integrity has to be a big question in our national politics. We can still do that in a General Election where there is only one candidate for each party in a constituency. It is less possible in elections where we have to vote for a number of candidates, since Tony Blair enacted legislation reducing that purely to a party contest. In those contexts he took the integrity vote away from the voters.
In short, it is getting harder and harder as each election comes and goes to know where I, as a floating voter, might place my cross. I have Christian friends who belong to each of the major parties, but I don’t find it easy to identify with one political creed, although I know it is important if you are going to get involved to do so. Furthermore, like most of the electorate I don’t have a technical understanding of economics, and so all those arguments that are presently raging are ones I feel I cannot call. I want to vote, not least because I have little right to complain about outcomes if I opt out, but that isn’t an inspiring and positive reason. I am conscious, though, of those who sacrificed that we might have this freedom. I am not taking it lightly, but I can understand those who wonder whether it will make a difference. Did The Who get it right in 1971 with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
Truly, discernment and prayer are necessary in large quantities right now.
It’s the last Sunday before Lent. (Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and I haven’t forgotten my lovely wife, but that’s not what I’m writing about here.) I thought I’d recommend a couple of Lent resources.
First off, a collaboration that would have been unthinkable some years ago. The Methodist Relief and Development Fund and the Evangelical Alliance have combined to provide Bible study notes and weekly videos. You can download notes for ‘What does the Bible say about power?‘ from the MRDF site; videos will be posted weekly from the 17th at the EA site. The EA are using this to link social justice with the Biblefresh initiative. Years ago, official Methodism wouldn’t even have talked with the EA; what a wonderful sign of changed moods.
What are you doing for Lent?