I’ve signed a letter

August 12, 2017

Most of the time I do not discuss church politics with St Barnacles. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First of all, such discussions can take a lot of energy and effort from our primary task which is to lovingly communicate the message of the Bible, the good news of Jesus Christ, in word and in deed. And even more importantly, it has to be said that the way such discussions take place often do little to bring credit to the church, and often undermine the very message we are seeking to share.

(By the way, when I refer to the church in this article I am referring to the Church of England)

But recently I have signed the following letter.

Letter

What is this all about?

For the past twenty-five years or so the church has been looking at the whole issue of sexuality. On the way we have listened to the voices of those who have been hurt by prejudice, hatred and bigotry, and hopefully we have learnt important lessons about compassion and humility.

At the same time society’s attitude to sexuality, to marriage and to gender has undergone a profound shift. It is now very rare to find a celebrity who supports a traditional understanding of marriage, for instance. Institutions like the BBC and the National Trust now celebrate sexual diversity, and those who are not in favour of embracing such diversity are routinely labelled as intolerant and “-phobic”.

So how should the church respond? Should it in the name of love and compassion embrace the sexual revolution or should it continue to teach and live by a traditional and Biblical understanding of sex and marriage?

It’s instructive to look across the Atlantic to what has happened to the equivalent Anglican denomination in the United States, the Episcopal Church. This church long ago abandoned a Biblical view of marriage and it now shows every sign of jettisoning other key doctrines as well. Once you decide that the Biblical teaching in one area no longer applies, why should Scripture have authority anywhere?

So a few years ago a separate Anglican denomination, the Anglican Church of North America, came out of the Episcopal Church. Despite the many obstacles it has faced, this new denomination continues to grow, while the Episcopal Church continues to lose members. This is hardly to be wondered at, because once Christians decide that they can dispense with orthodox Biblical teaching, they rapidly lose the distinctive message of the gospel.

This year the Scottish Episcopal Church also voted in favour of same-sex marriages. Again, there are orthodox congregations who have taken the painful decision to leave their denomination. However they wish to remain distinctively Anglican, so a new missionary bishop has been consecrated for them by an organisation called Gafcon, even though officially such a move has been condemned.

Gafcon stands for the “Global Federation of Confession Anglicans”. It is made up of the majority of Anglicans worldwide, including most African and Asian Anglican Christians. It is rapidly becoming a more and more important movement in the worldwide church, and its confession of faith, the so-called Jerusalem Declaration has become a powerful factor in uniting Christians in the West who want to preserve and promote the faith entrusted once for all to the saints.

What of the future of the Church of England? There is at the moment an unedifying struggle going on between those who wish to revise the church’s teaching on sexuality – in the same way that has happened in the United States and in Scotland – and those wish to continue to uphold the authority of Scripture, which is the primary issue in the whole debate. Sadly there is no longer any middle ground in these discussions and although I would like to simply concentrate on bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the streets of Stoke and Devonport, we are fast reaching a time when we need to make a stand.

This isn’t going to be easy. As I explained at the beginning, society has changed so much over the past twenty-five years. To a watching world it is incomprehensible that we would want to uphold a traditional understanding of marriage, let alone claim that the teachings of the Bible have any kind of authority.

In the meanwhile there are some very important things that we need to do.

First of all, it is important that we ourselves are living under the authority of Scripture in every area of our lives. Too often the church has been very hot about the issues of sexuality and marriage, but failed to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in other important areas. A church which upholds marriage between a man and a woman, for example, but does not practise radical forgiveness dishonours the gospel as much as the church down the road who has a different understanding of marriage but seeks to show compassion in all that it does.

Secondly, we need to pray for the Lord to have mercy on His church. We all know the headline figures about the church, and its ongoing decline, and we probably all pray for revival and renewal. But how can the Lord renew and revive a disunited church? Is it too late to hope and pray that in humility and repentance the whole church will turn back to the Lord? Or we approaching a time when like our brothers and sisters in the United States and Scotland we will need to separate? These are key questions about which much prayer is needed.

Thirdly, we need to pray for our bishops and those who hold public positions in the church, that they will speak with clarity and boldness. To come out and uphold the teachings of Scripture will invite scrutiny and ridicule and there may come a time when legal action will be involved. But then again, for all of us, maybe we need to look afresh at what Jesus says about taking up our cross and following Him. Maybe our present crisis is a way of Him refining and purifying us, and asking just what we prepared to give up for the sake of loving and obeying Him.

Please, therefore, do read this letter carefully and pray for those who are making a stand in this way. If you want to add your voice, please do speak to me. But as I also said, let’s make sure we keep our focus on what the Lord is calling us to do here, and our mission here at St Barnacles.

 

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What do we need to keep?

October 29, 2016

me-aged-5

Recently Lynda and myself have been sorting through the archives. We have found so much stuff! Old photographs, school reports, diaries etc. And it’s been a real dilemma knowing what to keep. We haven’t room to keep everything. But we want to keep some memory of the past. I am sure when we go through what’s left we will wonder why we kept some things and threw away others.

Churches, I believe, face a similar kind of issue. There are some churches which cling very rigidly to the past, where any change is seen as a threat and a challenge. There are others which simply get rid of any tradition and try to reinvent themselves from scratch. I’ve always tried to get a balance between the two extremes, but I suspect there is never a completely right and wrong answer to the question of what to keep and what to let go of, along the way.

On a practical level, I never cease to be amazed at just how much stuff a church can accumulate in a very short space of time. If we ever have to clear St Barnabas, then I think we will be surprised just how many things we have gathered over the past 13 years. Again, knowing what to keep and what to let go will involve some difficult decisions.

Are there any Biblical principles to help us? In the Old Testament the people of Israel were given detailed instructions about the furnishings they should make for the tabernacle which they carried about with them before they entered the promised land. When the temple was built, equally detailed instructions were given about how this was to be equipped, as a reminder that God had chosen to make his dwelling right there among His people.

The problem with the Israelites was that too often these furnishings became an end in themselves. So, for example, they carried the ark into battle as if it were just another national god (1 Samuel 4). The bronze snake Moses made for the Israelites’ healing became an idol worshipped in its own right (2 Kings 18:4). Why was this? Because they neglected the most precious thing of all they were supposed to carry around with them – the word of the Lord. By the time of King Josiah the book of the Law had been completely forgotten, and was only discovered when workmen were busy renovating the temple (2 Kings 22).

In New Testament times the church did not have any physical buildings. But the first believers, aware of the history of Israel, were conscious the one thing they needed to do was to pass on the word of the Lord faithfully from one generation to the next. So the apostle Paul was careful to pass on the essentials of the gospel as he had himself received it to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3). His concern for his “son” in the faith, Timothy, was that he would guard the deposit of the teaching entrusted to him and pass it on to reliable witnesses (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2).

No doubt as churches became established, the question of physical buildings and their furnishings became a live topic. But it seems to me that as we go forward, it is so important we remember the priority of passing on the word of God. Churches as institutions are very good at investing resources to preserve the fabric of their buildings. But they are only of importance in as far as they tell the story of the faith passed on from one generation to the next. And if there is no passing on of the faith, the church simply becomes a museum and a tourist attraction.

We need to remember this particularly at this time when nationally the Church of England is under pressure to alter the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3), as issues of human sexuality are being debated at the highest level. I love the history and the sense of mystery found in our churches, but the reason why our churches have lasted from generation to generation is that they have heeded the teaching passed on by Jesus to Paul to Timothy to reliable witnesses and ultimately to us.

I still haven’t solved the issue of what to keep and not to keep. That remains a tough one to answer. I rather like the picture of me aged 5, though!


Why we need to pray for our national church

June 19, 2016

From 9th to 11th July the parliament of the Church of England – known as General Synod – will be meeting in closed session to discuss issues of human sexuality. Why should we be aware of this meeting? For the very simple reason, that the outcome will affect every parish church throughout the land.

Now it can be hard to make sense of all the recent developments about the Anglican church, so here in a very summary form is a history of why we have reached this point.

Every ten years there is a meeting of Anglican bishops known as the Lambeth Conference. When the conference met in 1998, it was aware that on the one hand there is a history of homophobia in certain sections of the church, and on the other, parts of the church had moved away from a traditional and Biblical understanding of human sexuality. Attempting to meet both concerns, a resolution known as Lambeth 1:10 was passed (click on the link for the full text). Among other things, this resolution stated that the conference …

  • in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
  • recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.

However it became apparent soon afterwards that some member churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion were not going to abide by the resolution. In 2003 The Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) appointed as a bishop an openly gay and divorced man. For many congregations in the United States this was the final straw in a whole line of departures from Scriptural teaching.

These churches eventually formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This church has never been formally recognised by the Church of England, nor has any action ever been taken against TEC. Rather TEC has pursued a line of relentlessly litigating to recover property from breakaway churches.

So what might have appeared to be a dispute about the treatment of the LGBT community developed into a fundamental disagreement about the traditional view of Scriptures and a major issue of discipline in the worldwide Anglican church. TEC have subsequently and logically moved to approve rites for same-sex marriage, and although earlier in the year it looked like action would finally be taken against this church, in reality no discipline has been applied.

The events in North America and the Western hemisphere appalled many of the churches in the Global South who formed a movement known as GAFCON. So when the next Lambeth Conference came about in 2008, their bishops did not travel to London to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury but instead met separately in Jerusalem.

Out of this meeting came about the Jerusalem Declaration which not only addressed the issue of same-sex marriage but also reaffirmed a faith that is consistent with the teachings of the Bible and the foundation documents of the Anglican church. Please take time to click on this link and read the text in full, and please be aware that I stand fully in line with this declaration.

Since this first meeting of GAFCON in 2008, the movement has grown and spread in influence. The Church of England however continues to wrestle with the Biblical teaching on marriage, and over the past couple of years has held shared conversations to try and ascertain the way forward. The meeting of General Synod next month is all about the result of these conversations.

There is no doubt that the media will portray the meeting as being about the experience and the treatment of the LGBT community. But as I have already said, the issue at stake is far greater. It is about whether we live under the authority of Scripture and how we apply discipline within the life of the church.

It may well be at the end of the meeting the Church of England will be heading towards some kind of split, which will certainly affect our attempts to reach out with the good news, and be a credible, united voice in the nation.

So please pray for those three days of conversation. Please pray for our Archbishop Justin as he wrestles with these deep divisions. And pray for a spirit of repentance that all might seek the Lord with humility and in search of wisdom.