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.
Backing Off From Controversy? Contrasting Christianity Magazine’s Interviews With Mark Driscoll And Richard Chartres
It’s been a month since it all kicked off. I know that, because my subscription copy of Christianity magazine belly-flopped onto the welcome mat today. Last month it was that interview of Mark Driscoll by Justin Brierley in which Driscoll accused British preachers of being cowards.
This month, their main interview is with Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London. He’s a worthy subject for the in-depth treatment. He’s known to be close to the royal family, and hence preached at William and Kate’s wedding last year. My post citing his sermon led to the busiest day on this blog ever. He’s been part of defusing the stresses between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp. These topics and others are covered.
But there’s one dimension missing. I’m surprised and disappointed. Why does the interview not cover Chartres’ decision last year to suspend one of his area bishops, Pete Broadbent, over his controversial remarks in social media about the chances of William and Kate’s marriage lasting the distance? What exactly is the working relationship between royalist Chartres and socialist republican Broadbent?
As I see it, either party – Chartres or the magazine – could have nixed the subject. Chartres might have made it a condition of being interviewed that the question were not asked. Or Christianity magazine itself might have had reasons not to go there, because Broadbent is one of their consulting editors. Surely its omission is not accidental. That would suggest an incompetent journalist, and I don’t believe that.
But either way, when I saw the front cover, my natural inclination was to go straight to the interview and see whether that issue was covered. But no, it isn’t even publicly disallowed, say, by the bishop saying, “I’m sorry, that touches on areas of confidentiality and so I can’t discuss that.”
So can someone offer an explanation of this strange hole in the interview? Was it ruled out by Chartres? Did Broadbent ask the magazine not to raise it? Or did the magazine want to step back from controversy after last month? I’d be surprised if it were that last reason, because I think they came out of the Driscoll feature with great credit.
Whatever the reason, this loyal subscriber would be keen to know. And I imagine I’m not the only one.
I received my subscription copy of Christianity magazine yesterday, complete with the now infamous interview with Mark Driscoll, about which I wrote on Friday. In addition to the well-publicised insults to British Christian ministers, a couple more things took my breath away.
Justin Brierley pushes Driscoll about some of his more controversial statements, including the one where he said he couldn’t worship a Jesus he could beat up. Brierley points out that Jesus was beaten up – namely his suffering and death on the Cross. But that’s actually OK and manly for Driscoll, because that was like the valour of a soldier. (He forgets that a soldier would have been trying to dish out pain and suffering on his enemies, which I guess he might like, but there’s not exactly any evidence for Jesus doing that.)
But more, he then goes on to the Second Coming and says that the purpose of Jesus coming again is precisely so that he can ‘give a beating’. Well – yes, Jesus will judge and condemn sin, there will be eternal punishment for the unrepentant (although I disagree with him that it is an eternal, conscious torment – that doesn’t take apocalyptic language seriously). But to frame it in terms of Jesus coming to give people a beating is not going to put the right kind of fear of God into people, is it?
The second observation I had is where Driscoll refers to those who do not believe in penal substitution. Now let me make it clear that I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I am aware of the dangers in how it is framed and explained. I want nothing to do with those in the ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’ camp who explicitly talk of the Cross as a place where God killed Jesus. That says it all about the worst of this teaching.
However, what made my jaw head for the Southern Hemisphere was Driscoll’s supposed reason for why people reject penal substitution. Is it about concepts of justice or love? No! People reject it because – wait for it – it’s too … masculine.
So now you know.
“Who has used up all the handwash in the bathroom?”
Debbie asked the question, but she knew the answer.
“I did!” said Mark.
We should be pleased that our son is very good at washing his hands after going to the toilet. It’s just that he doesn’t think one squirt from the liquid soap dispenser is enough. He doesn’t accept that with water its effects will multiply. So he pumps the dispenser about three times on each occasion.
Our only problem on hand washing with Mark comes when I have to take him in a public toilet and he thinks the electric hand dryer is going to be too noisy. Only one thing is allowed to be loud in this life, and that is his voice! So confronted by a noisy hand dryer, he may want to dry his hands on his t-shirt instead, and complain vigorously if I don’t do likewise.
It’s easy to read today’s Lectionary Gospel with modern eyes and think it’s a story about hygiene. In which case, we would be as offended as the Pharisees and the scribes at the actions of Jesus and his disciples. In a time when we are even more concerned about safe, healthy practices in our churches due to swine flu – witness Anglicans and Catholics not using a chalice for communion and some Christians not wanting to share The Peace – this story may seem even more disturbing.
But the background is different. The religious lawyers of Jesus’ day had taken the Old Testament laws, imposed their own interpretations on them, and then made those interpretations a binding tradition on all Jews. Washing your hands before eating bread was not about physical cleanliness but about avoiding ritual defilement. And that seems to be something that never worried Jesus too much. After all, he shared table fellowship with ‘sinners’, making him unclean in the first place.
So the issue here is this: what shall we do with tradition? Is there still a place for it? Do we overturn it, like angry teenagers? What is its place, if any, for the disciples of Jesus?
What, then, is tradition? Put simply, tradition is the wisdom and truth that generations hand down to succeeding generations. Here’s an example. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, he speaks of passing on what was handed down to him. You could more literally translate it not simply as what was ‘handed down’ to him but as what was ‘traditioned’ (to coin a word) to him.
At its best, then, tradition is a good, helpful and even necessary thing. Truth and wisdom is handed down to us. Then it is our responsibility to hand it on to the following generations.
But because tradition is the means by which we hand something on, it cannot be the be-all and end-all in itself. If you like, tradition is a goods train, but it is only the train, and not the goods. What is important is that the goods get to their destination.
And that’s why when the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day made so much insistence on the regulations they had devised, they were putting all the stress on the train and not on the goods.
John Wesley said there were four sources of truth for Christians. They were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But he was clear that Scripture trumped all the other three. Tradition, then, for Methodists, has to be about the ways we hand on scriptural truth. If it faithfully conveys the biblical gospel, though, then tradition has done its job.
The problem comes when tradition gets ideas above its station. There was a story that illustrated this in the new issue of Christianity Magazine:
A church I know is dying from hypocrisy. And although I’m watching it from a distance, it’s still painful. The congregation is small, though very faithful, and the minister is a natural evangelist. But whenever someone is converted through an Alpha course or pub ministry they don’t stay in the church for long. The members soon show them that they are inadequate for their new faith: they know nothing about the depth and traditions of Christianity; the fumble their way round the Bible and prayer book; they don’t have the gravitas or decorum for respectful worship; and those who have children can’t control them properly. The old faithful, who are becoming fewer in number, can’t understand why the new believers don’t make more effort to be like them and to support the church like they do. They can’t see that they are suffering from that peculiar form of hypocrisy identified by Jesus – doing all the ‘right’ things for all the wrong reasons. And this results in repelling people from God.
What are we to do, then, if we are to stop tradition being used to damage people, as Jesus clearly thought was happening in his day, and was obviously happening in the church I have just mentioned?
I think there are two measures we must take. I have hinted at the first, but to underline it, let’s return to the Bible passage. Hear the words of Jesus again:
He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’ (Verses 6-9)
Jesus quoted the Scriptures and accused his opponents of abandoning Scripture (‘the commandment of God’) in favour of human tradition. So our first remedy must be to place tradition under Scripture, not outside or above the Bible.
If we’re going to place tradition under Scripture, then we need to do two things. The first is that we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The second is that we then need to subject our traditions to biblical teaching, and ask whether they do indeed carry the Gospel into our world, or whether they contradict it.
That’s why I’ve spent much of the last four years urging people into spiritual discipline, including Bible reading. It may be using daily Bible reading notes as I do. It may be using our imagination to enter the situation and the characters as Ignatius of Loyola taught. It may involve persistent chewing on whatever grabs us in a particular passage. But whatever approaches we take, the bottom line is that if we are serious about following Jesus, we will be serious about immersing ourselves in the Bible.
Then, when we do, we can examine our traditions. Do they convey the Gospel on a two thousand year journey into today’s world, or do they turn ‘human precepts [into] doctrines’ (verse 7b)? You could raise a lot of embarrassing questions about the way we do church without a lot of difficulty. A lot of the things that consume our time or tie us down have very little to do with the Gospel and should be open to all sorts of criticism. Are we in danger of Jesus quoting the same words from Isaiah about us that he did about the Pharisees and scribes: ‘In vain do they worship me’ (verse 7a)? Would he tell us that we ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (verse 8), even ‘rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep [our] tradition’ (verse 9)?
So – the first thing we need to do is place tradition underneath Scripture. This means we soak ourselves in the Bible and then examine our traditions carefully in the light of the Gospel.
But I said there were two measures. It’s not enough only to place tradition below Scripture. Why? Because you will have come across those kinds of Christian who know their Bibles well but lob verses of Scriptures at others like hand grenades. You’ll know how people have been wounded by other Christians cutting them to shreds with the Bible. So while, for example, I hold a traditional Christian view that the only place for sexual relationships is in marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, I am also aware of the way homosexual people have been damaged by the church.
Our second measure, then, is this. Having placed tradition under Scripture we must then guard our hearts. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, says it’s a matter of the heart:
This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me (verse 6b).
Where were the hearts of those who criticised Jesus and his disciples? Far from God. It’s the danger we face, too. If we do not stay close to God, then it doesn’t matter whether we are issuing edicts of tradition or firing bullets of Scripture, if we are not in close and vital contact with God, we’ll achieve nothing for the kingdom of God, however zealous we are. More likely we shall cause pain and put people off church, rather like the elderly people at the church I mentioned earlier whose actions have driven new converts away.
So how do we guard our hearts and draw near to God? I am reading a book called ‘Wrestling with God’ by an American pastor, James Emery White. On Friday, I read the chapter entitled ‘The Distance of God’ where he discusses many reasons why people may feel far from God. By no means all of them are our fault, but he asks some people, ‘What are you doing to stay close?’ and suggests some basic activities that will draw us closer to God:
- Are you praying?
- Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
- Are you involved in worship?
- Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
- Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
- Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
If the answer to any of these queries is ‘no’, then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it. God continues to ask the question, ‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ (Jeremiah 30:21)
Most or all of us are people who have begun a spiritual life, mostly many years ago. What is each one of us doing to develop it? We cannot be complacent. We cannot stand still – because we won’t remain where we are, we shall slide backwards, further away from God. There is great danger to our souls if we do not develop our spiritual lives. I have to challenge myself and say, just because I have followed certain spiritual practices for many years, am I still in a vital, living relationship with God, or have I drifted into stagnant water?
We are faced with a challenge, then: those who fail to nurture their spiritual lives become Pharisees. Not only do they waste away spiritually themselves, they hurt others by their harsh application of tradition.
On the other hand, those who do develop their life in the Spirit are disciples of Jesus. Feeding on Scripture and intentionally growing their relationship with God, they are like the image in Psalm 1 of a tree by the water.
Which, then, are we: Pharisee or disciple? It’s our choice.
 David Instone-Brewer, ‘New Testament Scandals #9 Hypocrisy’, Christianity, September 2009, p52.
 James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p53.
How many people have you come across who seem to have a one-track mind? At secondary school, plenty of the boys had one-track minds: they only thought about girls!
And there are preachers with one-track minds, too. Whatever passage they take, their sermons keep coming back to the same subject. Somebody once parodied them by rewriting the hymn ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs’. When it came to the lines, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their songs but all their joys are one’, he said, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.’
Jesus has a one-track mind.
At least, he has when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke. He has a one-track mind for the kingdom of God. You certainly get that here in Mark 4. It is Mark’s great ‘parables of the kingdom’ chapter. We have heard extensively about the Parable of the Sower, along with Jesus’ philosophy of parables. Here, we have the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed – two more that use agricultural images from his day to speak about God’s kingdom. He only speaks in this elusive way to the crowds – all they get is enigma. Only the disciples receive explanations.
For this morning, I’m just going to concentrate on the first parable in our reading, the Parable of the Growing Seed. It moves in three phases: sowing, growing and – this doesn’t rhyme – harvest. What do these tell us about Jesus’ one-track mind subject, the kingdom of God?
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’ (verse 26).
In my last appointment, I used to belong to a group of ministers that met monthly to support one another. When we worshipped together, one of our favourite songs was Paul Oakley’s ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’. One reason that song was important to us was these words:
It’s all about You, Jesus
And all this is for You,
For Your glory and Your fame
It’s not about me
As if You should do things my way
You alone are God,
And I surrender to Your ways
It’s all about you, Jesus. Not about us. A sin church leaders fall into all too readily!
And the sowing of God’s kingdom is all about Jesus, too. The Old Testament often speaks about God as king of his people, but when Jesus comes he announces that the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom is among people, because he has come. The sowing of the kingdom is the sowing of Jesus’ life. The sowing is his incarnation, obedience, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. In all these, we see close at hand that God reigns.
Yes, when the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary to bring about her miraculous pregnancy, that is the reign of God. When Jesus follows the will of the Father, that is the kingdom. When Jesus proclaims the message and demonstrates it in works of power, that is God’s kingdom at work. When he dies for the sins of the world, that is not the victory of evil but the kingdom conquest of sin. When he is raised from the dead, God’s kingdom triumphs over death. When Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, he is reigning on high – it’s the kingdom.
What does this mean for us? The primary sowing has been done. We get to do a secondary sowing of God’s kingdom. Whenever we obey the will of God, we sow the kingdom. Whenever we share the love of God in Christ for people by our words or our deeds, again we sow God’s kingdom in the world. Anything we say or do to point people in the direction of God’s reign over creation is a sowing of the kingdom. Any action that is in harmony with God’s purposes does the same thing.
In other words, Jesus calls us to spend our lives intentionally sowing the kingdom of God. It is not simply when we sing of his kingship on Sunday morning. It is tomorrow morning at work or in the community, when we are the people known to be those who care for the hurting, and who by sacrificial service earn the right to speak about Jesus to people. Tomorrow, we spend time sowing the kingdom as we seek the power of the Holy Spirit to live like Jesus.
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.’ (Verses 26-28, italics verses 27-28 mine)
It grows, and the sower doesn’t know how! I find that very helpful for interpreting some of my own experiences in the life of faith.
A few years ago, I had to take charge of a church temporarily when its minister was removed for disciplinary reasons and look after them until a new permanent minister arrived. Within days, I was called to visit a couple. It was Good Friday, and the husband was dying. As far as I am concerned, I simply visited, stayed with them, listened to what the wife had to say and led a prayer before leaving. On Easter Monday, the husband died. I visited again, took the funeral, and so on.
It was nothing remarkable in my eyes. In fact, I looked back and thought I could have done more. But not in the eyes of the widow. Cynthia told others in the church that I had greatly helped her through her bereavement. I can’t understand why she thought that.
Similarly, it has often been the sermons I have thought to be my weakest, or certainly the ones I have found to be the biggest struggle in preparing, that have had the most positive responses from congregations. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Well – it doesn’t make sense to me unless Jesus is onto something here. The sower in the parable sows the seed, but the growth happens without any fancy strategies. Off goes the sower to bed, and the seed gets on with growing from the earth. Jesus doesn’t need our cleverness. He doesn’t need our fancy programmes of action. Nor does he need our techniques. And he certainly doesn’t need us to manipulate people if the kingdom of God is to grow.
How does the growth happen, then? We simply get on with our obedience, however quiet and unflashy, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to bring growth. We obey, the Spirit grows the kingdom, not us.
The Apostle Paul said something very similar, when he was discouraging the immature Christians at Corinth from pursuing a personality cult:
‘What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
We plant (that is, we sow – as already described). And we water (that is, we find out what God is doing and join in with it). The growth comes from God, not us.
If that’s the case, then we know both the extent and the limit of our responsibilities in the kingdom of God. The extent of our responsibility is that we are called to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. We are junior partners in co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
But we are junior partners only. We are responsible for our obedience, but the Holy Spirit is responsible for the kingdom of God’s growth. So let’s get on with obeying Christ, calling on the Holy Spirit to make the kingdom grow.
Here’s how the parable concludes:
‘But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Verse 29)
What happens at a harvest? Why would the harvester use a sickle? When the growing season has come to a conclusion at the end of the summer, the farmer needs to bring the crop that has grown into the barns, separating it from other things that are burned. No longer do wheat and chaff mingle: they go to different destinations.
The harvest of God’s kingdom, then, involves both blessing and judgment. For all that is good, all that have grown in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and Christ, there is blessing. But for those who have sought to strangle the work of the kingdom, all who have been apathetic to the claims of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God’s pure love to contemplate.
This may not be a popular claim to make today, but it is clearly present in the imagery of the parable. Furthermore, Jesus seems to be building on the language of the prophet Joel, who used the picture of a sickle as a way of talking about God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord.
So it’s good news for the fire and brimstone brigade, isn’t it? Those who shout at us in the street, warning us of the coming judgment – they’ve got it right. Haven’t they?
Actually, no. This judgment is in the future, not the present, and it is the prerogative of God, not us. Like everyone else, we shall stand before Christ, dependent upon the mercy of God, a mercy we have found in the Cross, not our own superiority.
I was thinking about this yesterday, when the July 2009 issue of Christianity magazine came through my letterbox. The first column I read every month is the one by Jeff Lucas, and in his piece this month he had this to say:
‘… we followers of Jesus can become holy meddlers on a crusade to sort people out. We (who are so unsorted ourselves) can be quick on the draw with natty little ‘answers’ that are little more than slogans. Instead of just shutting up and listening, we rush to dispense our occasionally silly solutions. I know that the Bible encourages us to nudge and even rebuke each other so that we won’t be caught in insane and life-vandalising sins; but surely that doesn’t mean that today is yet another opportunity to run around looking for people to sort out, pronto.’
God will judge. His main judgment will be in the future. We are not to judge. This is not to eliminate the need for the Church to speak out on all sorts of social evils and to campaign against them. However, it is to say that whenever we need to do so, we must remember that we are sinners saved by grace, not a self-righteous cavalry riding over the hill to rescue poor old God.
Where does this leave the followers of Jesus when it comes to the development of God’s kingdom, then?
We begin by remembering that Jesus has sown the kingdom of God; we are secondary sowers of the word today.
Secondly, sowers are not growers: it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to grow the kingdom. Our calling is to the life of obedient faith, also by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, there will be a harvest of judgment where righteousness will prevail and evil will be destroyed. But vengeance is not ours. God will judge. We are his witnesses.
Truly, our calling in God’s kingdom is be junior partners with the Holy Spirit. Yes: junior partners.
Last week we discussed the church that removed a graphic crucifix in Horsham. This week, a similar issue has hit British television. The Daily Mail, Times and Daily Telegraph all report the case of a wedding scene in soapland, where the television crew wanted to remove a cross from a church where they were filming said wedding. On learning that the cross was fixed, they obscured it with candles and flowers.
Why did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for realism. Dry ice wafted through the scene – so just like any church service, then. According to church sources, they said they didn’t want to cause offence.
I didn’t see the show. Not only do I see very little TV, I’m allergic to soaps. I’ve been catching up on the issue after two church members told me about it.
In fairness, the television company has since apologised for the error and conducted an investigation. They believe there has been a misunderstanding over their intentions and motives. I wonder how the story would have been reported if the church had protested directly to Granada first and not gone public until after this investigation.
However, my main interest here is this: it’s curious to see the language used by the church leaders in protesting, and what it might imply. I’m particularly interested in the language of ‘offence’. In the Daily Mail report linked above, Stephen Regan of the Diocese of Chester is reported as saying,
The cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity, and should offend no one.
Er, hold on? The first part of his sentence is correct, but from the beginning of faith in Jesus the cross has been an offence. If the cross has been reduced to symbol in the sense of a corporate logo, then I suppose it wouldn’t offend, but that isn’t what we’re about.
Similarly, James Milnes, the rector of the parish, quoted in the Telegraph story linked above, rightly says that Granada Television had
emptied the church of the very thing that makes it a church
in that the Cross is what makes us the community of God. Absolutely. I once wanted to design a church letterhead as not showing a line drawing of the building, but people around the Cross.
However, what is strange is the extended quotation from his church magazine:
How can people think it offensive to see a cross in a church, in the same way as you would normally see the Koran in a mosque or the Torah in a synagogue? That is the emblem of this faith.
This has a resonance around the country. It plays into who we are as a nation because I do not think we have a clear idea as English people. We do not really know where we are going.
There is constant attrition to our way of life. You can’t say this or you can’t say that for fear of offending. Who can we possibly be offending?
If ’emblem’ has become ‘logo’, then again one can understand the shock at the sense of offence. But the Cross itself is offensive to many who do not know the power of the Gospel. Muslims would see the death of a ‘prophet’ such as Jesus as being demeaning to the dignity of God. To traditional Jews, one thinks of Paul quoting Deuteronomy in Galatians, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ To the Greeks of Paul’s day, it was foolishness, and it remains that to many people today.
To Christians, it is the glory of God’s love and grace. And that is what I understand the Revd Milnes and Mr Regan defending. However, they cannot expect it to lack offence. Here’s just a thought: do they take things this way because they have an ‘Established Church’ mentality? I’m just guessing, and may be doing them a disservice. If I am, I will apologise. However, Milnes clearly links the issue to the confused current destiny of being English, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark, even if I am wrong.
Yet as the Christian Church in the UK seeks a mission rôle as a minority group in society, I can’t help thinking that more helpful models of church are needed. I’ve spoken and written before, as others of a missional theological mindset have, of ‘exile’ as a helpful biblical model. From the perspective of church history, I find myself heading more in Anabaptist directions all the time. I don’t pretend that’s easy, in fact it risks being painful, but I do think the changed and changing society in which we live means we need to look for some different paradigms on which to model our witness.
In typing this, I am mindful of an interview in the February 2009 issue of Christianity Magazine, with Ann Widdecombe MP (the interview will probably not be online for another month). For anyone reading this who doesn’t know British politics, Miss Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in opposition to women’s ordination. In the interview, she is asked about the current vexed issue of the establishment of the Church of England. She replies:
I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.
But there’s the problem. Claiming the UK is a Christian nation is a fig leaf. Widdecombe would doubtless wish to protect establishment (even though she went over to Rome) for political reasons of constitution, and certainly some of the reasons advocated by politicians for disestablishment are weak and unChristian. But right now establishment is not protecting the rights of Christians in the courts when religious freedoms are trumped by other freedoms, so that some Christians cannot exercise their consciences and keep certain jobs. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic to expect that people won’t find the Cross offensive.
In saying all this, I may of course be putting too much weight on the use of the words ‘offend’ and ‘offending’ as used by Stephen Regan and James Milnes. Perhaps what Mr Regan really means is ‘surprised’. However, Revd Milnes uses his language in a context of objecting to ‘political correctness’, and so I am a little more sure that he really does mean to be concerned about the problem of offence. Certainly, the risk of offending people provided it is with the substance of the Gospel rather than just by being aggressive Christians (step forward Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who inevitably responded to requests for a quote) is a risk we must take today. If we do not, we shall not be faithful to the Gospel.
Interestingly, the Telegraph has this week carried the story of an Asian Christian minister in Scotland who claims he was sacked from an Asian community radio station for supporting Christianity and criticising a Muslim’s understanding of the Christian faith. The station disputes his account, and asked for questions to be put in writing. However, the Telegraph received no response to its fourteen points. If the case has been accurately portrayed in the newspaper (and I don’t think the station’s failure to respond looks good), then sadly this is the climate in which more and more British Christians live. Mr Milnes and his parishioners may have had a rude awakening into it, even if it was a misunderstanding and Granada Television meant no offence. This is not to seek persecution or develop some unhelpful persecution complex, which some Christians play on, but it is, I think, to be more realistic.
Over to you.