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.
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.