First we had the so-called ‘Nashville Statement’ (see my blog ‘The Nashville Statement’, 30/8/17, www.modernchurch.org.uk ) with its homophobia and idolatry masquerading as ‘Bible-based’ theology. Now we have the ‘Boston Declaration’ (www.thebostondeclaration.com )from a huge and diverse group of American academics and Church leaders, including a number from well-known conservative Evangelical seminaries, sub-titled: ‘A Prophetic Call to Christians of the United States’.
The whole Declaration is worth reading. The first half is a powerful statement of the nature of the Christian faith and is worthy of attention from us all. The second part, properly, is about the specific context of the United States and the many issues that confront the nature of Christian truth and Christian faithfulness at this current moment there – though that is not to say that many of the social, political and theological evils the signatories identify do not have their counterparts not only in England, but across Europe. This statement stands at the heart of the Declaration:
We believe in a God who holds all difference within God’s own life and in whom there is no one or no people who are distant from God’s justice, merciful love, and presence (Micah 6:8; Acts 10:34-35). We affirm the beauty and humanity of all people in their manifold difference–race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion–as reflecting God’s image through lives of love and hope. We believe the Jesus Way calls us to the possibility of living in a world where all can love and be loved, and live into joy.
The ‘prophetic call’ in the Declaration is both a profoundly theological one, and a call to practical action. Theological, because it challenges Christians to change the way they read the Bible, and the way think about, understand and articulate their faith. It is also a profoundly incarnational theological understanding: we are called to ‘live’ our faith into being. We are called to embrace the deep Christian truth that all people are God’s people, that nothing and no-one stands outside the scope of God’s love and concern for God’s world, that God with us stands as much in solidarity as in judgement, that the incarnation of our God means that everything matters. We are called to open our hearts and minds to the love of God active in the world, and in everyone.
But we are also called to act decisively.
The Jesus Way continues through our best, prayerful, honest, and empirical attempts to understand why and how the world has come to be in the shape it is today. This pathway calls us to act in ways that are Spirit-led and strategic in confronting evil wherever evil exists, to combat ignorance wherever ignorance has led people astray and to place our lives and our bodies on the line with whoever is being threatened, beat down, or oppressed in any way, anywhere.
This is a clarion call worth heeding, for it re-calls us to the roots and dynamics of faith in a living God, active in us and in the world. We need this call back to the roots of love that are the foundation of our faith. We need this call at a time when truth is discarded and lies and corruption are rife. We need this call at a time when people and their lives and flourishing count for little and abuse of all sorts is tolerated – even perpetuated – by those with power in state and church. We need this at a time when some churches are so worried about numbers that they neglect those for whom they exist and treat with contempt those who would point to the Christ and say, ‘the world need not be the way it is’. We need this call to action, this call to revisit the deep roots and truth of our faith: we need this call because the world God loves needs this call.
The Living God asks us to make a decision: ‘today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil…choose life’ (Deut. 31) Following Jesus today means choosing life, joining the Spirit-led struggle to fight the death-dealing powers of sin wherever they erupt. Whenever one of God’s children is being oppressed, we will fight with them for liberation with the power of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit.
The Nashville Statement took us into the dark places of the narrative of hate and fear and evil. The Boston Declaration can lead us back from that narrative of hate to the open vistas of God’s love, to the landscape of life. Choose Life.
General Secretary of Modern Church, www.modernchurch.org
There’s a report this morning (16/11/17) on the Religion News Service (RNS: http://www.religionnews.com) about the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City Tennessee breaking away from the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (formerly the Tennessee Baptist Convention) because they have appointed a woman as pastor. While those of us who rejoice in the ministry of women may want to decry the misogyny and patriarchal attitudes that lie behind the split, it should also not be surprising. Purity cults are always doing that sort thing.
I used to be a Baptist before the beauty and spirituality of Durham Cathedral enticed me into the Anglican fold. My experience of Baptists, in the United States at least, left me with two abiding experiences: the memory of a warm community with a deep reverence for Scripture, and a deep and abiding suspicion of those who didn’t think like us. While we were a part of a larger body of Baptists across the nation, our association was always conditional on that association remaining as pure as we were. Breaking up is not hard to do.
The history of the Christian church is littered with the carcasses of purity cults, and it begins in the New Testament itself. Table fellowship between different expressions of the Christian faith was threatened almost immediately in the fledgling church over the admission of gentiles into the fold. Some wished to welcome them with open arms because they could see that God’s Spirit was at work and alive in them (independently of the church’s official mission, it seems: there is an important lesson for the church today in that), and others wanted to make sure that they believed and acted in the same way they were. An uneasy truce was negotiated in Jerusalem for a while, but it didn’t last long. St Peter and St Paul went their own ways, preaching their distinctive versions of the Gospel, each convinced of the purity and righteousness of their own view to the point where St Paul uses some very violent language about Peter and his tribe and their version of the faith.
Purity cults – expression of religious faith which, in fact, worship their understanding of the faith rather than the God who inspires it – abound today. But because the basis for their existence are lines drawn very tightly around themselves (and therefore have a fleeting semblance of certainty about everything as if they knew the mind of God), they don’t last very long: it’s so easy to cross the line, to need to be disciplined, to be thrown out, with deep regrets, for apostasy. They tend, like the Baptists in Tennessee, to break away from each other in fits of righteous indignation over the apostasy of the other. No wonder there are not only First Baptists in Jefferson City, but nine other Baptist churches as well.
Purity cults are not, however, always or even usually benign towards those who are apostate. The history of the Christian church is not only littered with the carcasses of purity cults, it is piled high with the corpses of the apostate. It’s remarkable how righteous indignation over the apostasy of the ‘other’ turns to violence; first of language, as St Paul shows so crudely and vividly, and then of a physical sort. Whether it’s the Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, or the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe, violence towards the apostate other seems to follow as night follows day as the purity cults draw the lines tighter and build their walls higher. Even Martin Luther King, Jr suffered and was killed because he dared to push at the lines in fighting for the rights of Black men and women, in looking for the broad uplands of social justice rather than the narrow valleys bigotry and self-righteousness. King had a vision of the God who demands justice and mercy and love and lifted the eyes of those who heard him above their lines of certainty to glimpse the promised land of God’s kingdom.
Even in my adopted spiritual home of the Church of England, let alone within the wider Anglican Communion, purity cults abound. We may not now be able to do physical violence to one another, but the violence of language is unabated, even if it is masked by talk of ‘mission’. In her resignation statement from the Archbishop’s Council, Lorna Ashworth states: “In light of this revisionist agenda and the heretical teaching that comes with it, I am no longer willing to sit around the table, pretending that we, as a governing body of the Church of England, are having legitimate conversations about mission.” ‘Revisionism’ and ‘heresy’ – words that open doors to darkness.
In her report on the split of Baptists in Tennessee, RNS reporter Holly Meyer writes, ‘Southern Baptists highly value the autonomy of the local church to make its own decisions, but they also believe the Bible dictates who can preach from the pulpit. Earlier this fall, the convention’s credentials committee declared that First Baptist is “not a cooperating church” because its senior pastor is female.’ An interpretation of Scripture that is highly contentious is elevated to exclude. The lines are drawn tighter, the walls built higher, and the door to darkness is opened.
General Secretary of Modern Church, http://www.modenchurch.org
The Brexit Secretary, David Davis MP, has offered the House of Commons (13/11/17) a vote on the Brexit deal (should one ever appear) on the basis that ‘you can take it or leave it’. If Parliament doesn’t approve it, we leave any way: it’s ‘my deal or no deal’; Brexit my way or no way.
There are some within the Christian churches who treat Christian unity in that way too: we can be united on my terms or not at all. I’ve been give sight of a proposed revision to a local ‘churches together’ document that does just that. Whereas before it was open enough to encourage churches and congregations to join, the new leadership want to tighten things up in a way that is clearly meant to exclude. The new leadership are not even able to see the irony in drawing up a document intended to exclude that is called ‘The Basis of our Unity’. It’s unity my way or no way.
There is no theological or biblical basis for this. Understandings of the Christian faith are irreducibly diverse. There simply has never been a time when all Christians have agreed in the same way about even basic matters such as the meaning of the death of Jesus (the proliferation of ‘atonement’ theories in the Gospels alone is enough to show this). Reductionist Christians simply refuse to accept and understand the diverse riches contained in Scripture and elevate one tradition of reading them into the position of God – a single interpretation of the Bible becomes their golden calf. My version of the Christian faith or there’s no unity.
And it does no good when those who don’t agree with the ‘pure interpretation’ that’s offered if they accept it anyway in order to appease the false god of ‘unity my way or not at all’. Christians have always come to Christ in the context of division between Christians who understand things differently. Christians have always borne witness to the love of God in Christ through acts of kindness, through working for social justice, through preaching the Gospel of God’s love in Christ, through trying to ensure that all people can have the abundant life Jesus promised, in the context of division.
Being ‘one in Christ’ has never been about simply believing the same things, it’s always been about loving one another in Christ in spite of our differences, whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight, fundamentalist or liberal.
I don’t believe some of the things that the leaders of this particular group of Christians say we must believe in order to belong; or at least, I believe them in a different way. While it may be that Christians need to believe seven impossible things before breakfast every day, my impossible things – such as love your enemies, do justice, love mercy, bless those who persecute you, that the Holy Spirit will guide us further along the way of truth, that peace is possible in our hearts, homes and in our world – may not be your impossible things. Peter and Paul could not have disagreed more about some pretty basic things, but both proclaimed, in their different ways, that love is the meaning of the cross, that Christ unites us more than our inadequate understandings divide us, that God will judge and the eternal destiny of anyone is not up to you or me (though I’m pretty sure that eternal destiny is not what the Christian faith is about anyway…).
The properly theological basis of our unity is not about a form of words: ‘Jesus remember me’ is more than enough. The theological basis of our unity is that we – all of us – are being made new in Christ by the continual renewal of our minds, by the opening of our hearts and hands in acts of love and mercy, by being open to the work and guidance of God’s Spirit in the world and in our lives, and even, sometimes in the church. It is the fruit of our lives not the words of our mouth that delivers our unity. To focus on the words we use is to narrow the scope of God’s love to what a fallible human mind can manage: it is hubris – the most deadly and original of sins.
General Secretary of Modern Church: http://www.modernchurch.org.uk
The right wing thought police have been out and about counting up students who do and don’t wear a red poppy at this time of year. Not wearing a poppy (or wearing a white poppy instead) means you’re left wing, a foreigner, or unpatriotic – perhaps even all three. But what is Remembrance for, with or without a poppy?
The purpose of our national Act of Remembrance, and the countless smaller commemorations, is to remember before God those who gave their lives for their comrades and their country and to stand in awe at their courage and sacrifice. It is also to pledge ourselves, as we do this day each year, to work for the kind of peace which is more than just the absence of war, but which is the precondition and context for human flourishing. For we know that as we seek and work for the kind of Kingdom Jesus came to bring, the causes of war – poverty, injustice, oppression and greed – stand less chance of destroying our human relationships and creating the conditions where conflict breeds.
So Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday aren’t just days for remembering the dead; they are not a sort of equivalent to All Souls when we pray for the faithful departed. Remembrance Day is a time for marking in our public life the things that are important to giving coherence and meaning to our society and our world; it’s a time for celebrating, in Christian terms, the godly values and vision that draw us towards being the best we can be; it’s a time to commit ourselves to those things that give us meaning and purpose and worth. Remembrance is not a requiem, but a commitment to the future based on learning from the past. We remember today, we remember and celebrate and learn from the things that can, even in the worst of times, make human beings great.
Remembrance in the Jewish and Christian traditions is never a mere remembering, a recalling of events that are past. Remembrance is always bringing the past into our present in a way that shapes our future. As we gather in God’s name across the country on Remembrance Day, or as we share bread and wine around the Lord’s Table, so we make him present in our lives now to make and shape our future. So too with our civic remembrance: we bring those who have died in war into our present to help make and shape our future, recognising in them and their sacrifices the values and actions that can help to make our world a better place, a place where we can live happily under the judgement and scrutiny and by the values of God.
When I was a parish priest and led the Remembrance service for our town, I was always very moved by the force with which all the old soldiers present committed themselves to working for a better future, a future in which their kind of sacrifices would no longer be necessary. They wanted to make sure that the sacrifices they had made would actually make a difference to the world. They wanted us all to work to eliminate the things that lead to war – poverty and oppression, hopelessness and fear; they wanted us all to give ourselves to peace-making, to trying to heal the divisions between people and nations that so often lead to war. They wanted their sacrifices to be worth it by knowing that we would build on what they had done. Of course they looked back, often with great sadness at what they and others had lost. But most of their concern was for the future, with making the world a safer, fairer and happier place. Their message to us was that the world need not be the way it is: it could be better.
Looking ahead to a future which is God’s, and bringing our past into loving remembrance, should enable us to see just how much there is for us to do in the present, to see the high calling God has for us, God’s people, as we confront the great and pressing needs of our world today.
General Secretary of Modern Church
The words about the Reformation, as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, are flowing: deep and wide. The Religion News Service (@RNS on Twitter) has had a month-long series of articles and opinion pieces about it. The Radio has got in on it with special programmes, and there was even a two-part German dramatisation of the beginnings of the Reformation on BBC Four. The Word became flesh and turned, it seems, into articles and programmes about the Reformation.
Last June my wife and I were in Wittenburg (Luther’s home town) with friends to join the celebrations around the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and more specifically, Martin Luther’s marriage to the formidable ex-nun Catherine von Bora. The weekend, which included a procession of 2000 people in period dress, as characters from the wedding, was a magical mixture of theology meets Game of Thrones meets Disneyland: it was brilliant.
We also took in a wonderful, imaginative exhibition in Luther’s house. Part of that was a really surprising range of 95 people – everything was in 95s – influenced in one way or another by Luther’s thought, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Steve Jobs. Among them was the 19th century Danish educator and religious reformer NFS Grundtvig. He wrestled (as all subsequent Lutherans do) with Luther’s legacy, and concluded that, ‘I am not of the opinion that we should stick with what Martin Luther did 300 years ago, because only death remains fixed. Life is always in motion.’
As events in world history go, Luther’s Reformation – however you view it, however you evaluate it – ranks right up there with the most massive. 500 years on and we are still living with its consequences, with the aftershocks of this religious and political earthquake. It is an event which has shaped our modern world (at least in the West…), even if not all the consequences have been savoury (think of the way in which Luther was used by the Nazis to support their genocidal pogrom against the Jews).
Standing back from the detail of what Luther said and wrote, there are big streams of ideas that emerge: literacy, the importance of individual conscience, religion without intermediaries, the centrality of the Bible. The sale of indulgences shocked Luther into reading the Bible differently than had been traditionally done. Noticing St Paul’s insistence that we are saved by faith alone (and not by works or by buying your way) gave him a new interpretive tool which transformed what he saw. Reading and interpreting the Bible differently from the way it had been read and interpreted for more than a thousand years before stands at the heart of what Luther (and his friends, followers and rivals) accomplished.
Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that reading and interpreting the Bible differently has continued to be a part of the Reformation legacy. And that legacy has led in many different directions from fundamentalism to Liberation Theology to the historical-critical scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries (it was the promotion of this new critical scholarship that gave birth to Modern Church in 1898).
Christians have found new ways of reading the Bible through their experience of God and the world and each other, and through those new ways of reading have seen the Bible with fresh eyes. These fresh readings have enriched our faith and broadened our horizons as we seek to be faithful. This is not about ‘strange doctrines’ for those ‘with itching ears’, but about what it means to follow God’s Spirit alive and active in every aspect of life and experience.
None of this is weird and is simply the natural result of opening the Bible to everyone. The fact that some people want to restrict what readings of the Bible are ‘legitimate’ is about power and not about truth. The genie of liberating the Bible from ‘official’ interpretations and understandings is well and truly out of the bottle and cannot be put back in.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that any old way of reading the Bible will do. The whole reason Modern Church came into existence was to promote ideas that will help people read the Bible prayerfully and critically – that is, through careful scholarship seeking not only to understand ‘original’ meaning in a properly contextual way, but to examine the assumptions through which it was written and through which we read it. As Socrates might have said, ‘the unexamined reading of scripture is not worth having’.
We should also not be surprised that the deep and rich texture and variety of the content of the Bible leads people in different directions in their prayerful and critical study. As we come to understand even what it means to be human more fully, let alone come to understand the universe in which we live and our place within it better, so we should not be surprised that that experience has an impact on how we (or just as importantly, others) read the Bible. Our experience and understanding of the Bible can become richer when I add your experience to mine as we read and study it together, even as we debate about its content, meaning and application.
The evolution of our understanding and use of the Bible would not surprise Luther. He was well aware that in this life we do not achieve either full perfection or full knowledge. He understood that faith and understanding and holiness are a journey, a road on which we travel and not a destination we achieve. As Luther wrote,
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing towards it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
Grundtvig was only echoing Luther when he observed that ‘life is always in motion’. To move on – in our understanding, our commitment, our openness to the movement of God’s Spirit at work in the world – is the natural state of the Christian life. ‘Only death remains fixed’.
General Secretary of Modern Church
One of my secret sins is listening to RadioX while I’m working, especially if I’m writing a sermon. I do it mostly for the music and rarely pay attention to what the presenters witter on about. While working this afternoon, on a pretty murky day in Exeter, my ears pricked up when I heard the presenters talking about an author I enjoy very much (Bernard Cornwall) launching a book at Church House, Westminster. One presenter asked ‘Where?’, and the other said, ‘you know, the place where the Church of England meets to talk about sex’.
Whatever we may think, however many numbers the Statistics Unit churns out, however many ‘initiatives’ Bishops might have, however much good work is done in parishes, chaplaincies and cathedrals up and down the land, however many people are fed by church Food Banks, however much we preach intelligent and spiritually profound sermons, this is what people ‘out there’ think we spend all our time talking about.
This is disastrous for mission, not least because most people ‘out there’ don’t spend all their time agonising about sex, and spend little time thinking about what happens in the privacy of someone else’s life and relationships. Our obsessions make us irrelevant to the lives of most people, and all the good stuff we do gets lost in the fulminations, recriminations and divisions.
But it’s worse than that too. Our obsession with sex creates a fog of noise and nastiness so thick and uninviting that few want to make the attempt to get through it to the sunnier places where the Gospel of God’s love shines in all those good things we do. Our obsession with sex is a barrier to the Gospel and not an expression of it.
Just because our church leaders seem to be obsessed with sex, we don’t need to be. We could instead, for instance, become obsessed with justice – a much more prominent biblical theme than sex. We could be obsessed with learning from the life of God incarnate and be open to the work of God in the world and change from narrow parochial concerns to a vision of a world transformed by love. We could learn an acceptance that turns to love, and quit our equally negative obsession with ourselves.
All this matters. My hunch is that the seemingly irreversible decline in church-going in this country – across all denominations – is a self-inflicted wound. We’ve clung on to passé ideas, refused new knowledge, hidden ourselves (and the Gospel) behind noise that creates more heat than light, and are now shocked and surprised to find that few people find us interesting anymore. Our moral authority went with the child abuse scandals; our intellectual authority went when we stopped taking scholarship seriously and put a kind of shallow Biblicism in its place.
It’s not clear to me that this position is recoverable; the damage may already be too great. There aren’t even that many deck chairs left to re-arrange. But perhaps this season of self-indulgent obsession with sex can be followed by a season of openness, learning and humility. We need to do what politicians find so difficult and admit we’ve got it wrong. We need to apologise for decades spent chasing our tails while opportunities for radical service and thoughtful listening were scattered around the hillside like sheep without a shepherd.
We may even need to stop talking about what we think THE Good News of the love of God in Christ is, and talk instead about what the Good News of the love of God in Christ means for this person or in that place. Perhaps, then, step by step, we can re-build trust, clear some of the fog away, shine some light into the dark places of our world (and even ourselves), and be, once again, what we are called to be: Christ for the world.
General Secretary of Modern Church
It’s easy to mock the communiqués that come out of the Primates’ meeting. There is a call for a ‘season of prayer of repentance and reconciliation’, and one might ask when is not a season of prayer of repentance and reconciliation? There are bits that sound like a conflated discussion of security in Northern Ireland and Harvey Weinstein when it speaks ‘deliberate non-consensual cross-border activity’. Then there is the shocking news that actions (the Scots allowing same-sex marriage in church) have ‘consequences’, expect that these ‘consequences’ are imposed on the Scots (‘no more meetings for you, then’) and not just happy couples being married.
But apart from the silly name these bishops give themselves (which always give rise to pictures of Jane Goodall at work), and the arcane language in which everything is put (it’s not clear to me what ‘total gospel’ might mean), there was some hope to be found in this meeting. By all accounts, Archbishop Jackson Sapit of Kenya, spoke for them all when he said, ‘The main thing for the Church is to be a witness and to go out there and not focus too much on narrow, probably internal differences.’ A far cry from so-called ‘GAFCON’, which lamented that the meeting didn’t focus more on the ‘false teaching’ that was ‘putting souls in danger’ (they seem obsessed by sex).
The really important part of what Archbishop Sapit said was in the form of a question to which he gave a response:
What are the weighty issues facing the world? We can’t allow ourselves not to listen to what is happening in the world around us.
What is happening in the world around us happens within the life and love of God – no person and no thing stands outside God’s love for God’s creation. The job of the churches (and it is far from being just the job of church leaders) is to discern what, amid the jumble of competing voices we hear in the world and even inside ourselves, is of God and what is not.
And it’s not guess work. We can start by asking ‘what is the loving thing to do/think?’ Loving as God loves, after all, is what we are called to do. And we know from the teachings of God incarnate, that we will know who is with us as we seek to do God’s will and be God’s people by the fruits of love they bear (not by the ‘i’s they dot and the ‘t’s they cross). The Devil, St James reminds us, is a pretty good and orthodox theologian.
We can be like religious leaders of old and be ready, even anxious to stone those who do or say the ‘wrong’ things, or we can follow the example of God incarnate and offer everyone unconditional love, the love that leads to human flourishing, and not just on the terms given to us by those who assume the mantle of speaking for God. The great point of the Reformation, as we celebrate its 500th anniversary, is that we don’t need – ordinary Christians do not need – intermediaries to read and discern the will of God in Scripture or in the work of God’s Spirit in the world. All we need is being open to the love of God at work in us, the love of God at work in the world and the love of God at work in ‘those who are not against us’ to understand and do God’s purposes in our discipleship.
If by ‘total gospel’ the Archbishops mean, with Julian of Norwich, that ‘love was his meaning’, then I’m 100% with them.
General Secretary of Modern Church