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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Reflection on Orlando

June 14, 2016

So another mass shooting has happened in the United States and once again our screens are filled with images of shocked survivors and grieving relatives. It can be so easy to be almost blasé about the stories we hear, in some ways we have heard these voices so many times before being repeated again and again on rolling news cycles until the words acquire a dreadful and hollow familiarity.

But each tragedy is unique and has its own victims. And surely our response must be to stand and weep with parents, siblings, partners and friends who have lost their loved ones, and pray for those so seriously injured. We may of course wonder about the wisdom of the gun laws. We may despair of the pernicious influence of Islamic state. But now is not the time to make political points. We are called simply to affirm our humanity and allow the Holy Spirit to interpret the deepest groans of our hearts.

It may well be that the shooting in Orlando was homophobic in nature. If so, then this event truly was homophobia in its worst form and needs to be named as such.

For my part, I am a conservative Christian who holds to the Biblical teaching on marriage as a fundamental part of my faith. I could argue my position – but again this is not the time. Let me say however as clearly as possible that this does not mean I hate or want to cause violence to anyone from the LGBT community. I hold my position only as someone who has his own shortcomings, who is aware that all of us fall short of the glory of God in so many ways, whatever our sexuality, whatever our understanding of the Christian faith.

After all, if we cannot show compassion to those who are different from ourselves or to those with whom we disagree, then I believe we are showing rather less than the love of Christ to our neighbour. And unless we keep on showing that same love Christ first showed us, then ultimately the hate and the fear stirred up by terrorism will prevail. That, it seems to me, is something that none of us should allow to happen.

 


Accepting the whole package

January 16, 2016

You may – or may not – have heard something about a meeting of archbishops from across the world in Canterbury last week. If you haven’t, then this isn’t too surprising. Main media outlets have been reducing their coverage of religious events over the years, and they simply fail to understand why anyone would be interested in the affairs of the Anglican church. There have been some reports however, but even then the content of these reports has frequently been misleading. Somehow, it seems, the archbishops of the Anglican church have decided gay sex is wrong and allowed homophobia to continue unchallenged.

Except they haven’t. Take some time to look at the actual words of the statement issued last Thursday, which you can read here. The real issue concerned how to respond to the branch of the Anglican Church in the USA, called The Episcopalian Church (TEC) which decided to authorise same-sex marriages in its churches and so depart from the traditional view of marriage held by the rest of the Anglican churches across the world.

Put like that, you may wonder why any media outlet would want to cover the meeting, and indeed this is hardly the stuff of front-page headlines. But for us as Christians it is an extremely important issue.

Let me explain: sometimes when you ask someone about their faith, you get the reply, “I would like to think that…”. This is because faith is so often seen as a matter of individual choice. So according to this line of thinking, you take the bits of the faith that you find comfortable (for example, that God is love or that heaven is real) and you leave out the bits of faith that you find more difficult (for example, that God is judge or that hell is real).

But if we really understood what faith in Jesus Christ means, we would soon realise we are not at liberty to take a pic’n’mix approach to what we believe. The Bible and the historical councils of the church have laid down certain truths which generations of believers have held as definitive and necessary for salvation. Read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, for example, or think about the words we use when we say the creeds. These are not items on an Internet shopping order we can select at our leisure. Our faith is a whole package, and we either have to hold on to all of it, or not at all.

And what the meeting in the Canterbury affirmed last week is that: The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. In other words, marriage is part of the package we have to accept as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. I don’t have the time now to go into all the reasons why this is so, but this explains why the archbishops in Canterbury decided to discipline The Episcopal Church. The issue in question was not about gay sex or the pastoral care of those with same-sex attractions. It was about what to do with a church whose synod decided to dispense with one of the fundamentals of the whole package of the Christian faith.

That action was taken and that the meeting achieved unity in its actions is in itself a remarkable answer to prayer. No-one knows what long term effect the Primates’ Statement will have but for those faithful Anglicans around the world who have been longing for the church to move back towards its Biblical roots, last Thursday’s statement was an important first step. What the next steps will be, the Lord alone knows. But we need to pray for all those who were present at the meeting and above all for our Archbishop, Justin Welby, who needs more than ever the grace of God to fulfil the task given to Him.

 


Why the wedding industry is bad news

November 18, 2014

A couple of interesting articles on marriage appeared yesterday.

First of all, a piece in the Spectator revealed that those in the “higher managerial category” are 48% more likely to enter into marriage than those in the bottom tier of society.

Secondly, a blog from the Marriage Foundation shows that with the rise of cohabitation more and more children are growing up without a stable home environment and that this trend is increasing.

It’s interesting putting the two pieces of research together. It would be too easy as a result to castigate the bottom tier of society for living together and breaking up more frequently. But this ignores a very real issue: that debt is one of the most pressing reasons for relationships breaking down. When the cost of living is going up, and you’re being paid less than the living wage and/or you are on a zero hours contract, the economic challenge of raising a child can appear insuperable.

Of course there are people at every level of society who live together, and evidence suggests that no matter what your income level, cohabitation is ultimately less stable than marriage. Why is this? Well, to get theological for a moment, cohabitation is a private agreement between two individuals. Their relationship may be very loving, and may even be Christlike. But it is not in itself marriage, as defined by Scripture and upheld by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Marriage is in essence a covenantal relationship. Despite all the talk about celebrities and their “pre-nups”, it is not a contract in which each side performs obligations in order to receive the benefits of their relationship. It is a covenant, where each side freely gives of themselves without demanding anything from the other party. You love because you love, just as God loves us, just because He loves us. And the thing about any covenant, as defined by Scripture, is that it is publicly witnessed, there are people who can attest to what has happened, and it is sealed by some kind of ceremony, often involving a meal. The rationale for the first marriage in the Bible is that it is the public creation of a new social unit (Gen 2:24). Later on, in Ephesians, Paul gives an added reason for believers to enter into marriage: it is a reflection of the covenantal love Christ has for his church (Eph 5:25-33).

But back to hard economics. Because unfortunately when you talk about marriage, it is usually assumed that you are talking about a couple having a big day which costs upwards of £10,000. There is a huge wedding industry out there which insists that every detail has to be expensive and polished, and of course for many people £10,000 is either unaffordable or leads them into the very debt that destroys their relationship.

It hasn’t helped that in a sense the Church of England has colluded with the wedding industry. Back in 2004 the cost of a wedding service in church was £180. In 2009 it was £254. In 2014 it is £392. Such a rise may be justified when there are couples queuing to get married in a pretty country church, and will spend anything to achieve their goal. But even £392 can be a lot of money for those who would like to get married but can’t see how to afford it.

So here’s a radical suggestion. Why not offer weddings as part of the evangelism of the church? Get the whole body of Christ involved. There are usually people around who provide the music, do make-up, arrange flowers, bake a cake, lay on a nice car, take photos. Wouldn’t it be a great example of the whole body of Christ using their gifts to serve others? And, oh yes, we would see if we could cut the fee to £100.

We may not be able to solve the wider problems of debt and economic hardship. But with more couples able to enter into a covenant relationship and being able to look back on a day when they publicly affirmed their love before family and friends, couldn’t the local church do just a little bit to fight back against prevailing trends?

To quote something the Pope said yesterday (and I am not usually given to quoting him) “permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart”. So the question is – what can we do to encourage this permanent commitment?

I’d love to hear from you.


Lent Blog Day 14 – Something we don’t talk about

March 20, 2014

When was the last time you heard Christians talking about lust? For most people it’s a shameful, embarrassing subject that for good reasons we don’t tend to talk about. Yet if we take Jesus’ teaching seriously (Matt 5:27-30) then it’s something we should at least teach and preach about, although probably more in the context of small groups and one to one. Jesus has some strong words for those who look lustfully at others. Why? Because lusting is the opposite to loving your neighbour. Lust sees your neighbour as something who to be enjoyed, used, and probably then discarded. Love sees your neighbour as someone to be respected, valued and honoured.

Why is lust so harmful? Well, firstly, it takes no account of the wider community. In the heat of the moment you don’t tend to think about the effect on those around you. But families are destroyed by one person’s addiction to pornography, congregations devastated by the minister’s affair, children left without the support of a parent. Lust is dangerous and destructive.

Lust also takes no account of consequences. According to Paul even an encounter with a prostitute creates a one-flesh bond (1 Cor 6:16). There is in God’s eyes no such thing as “casual sex”. The aftermath of an affair leaves behind emotional and spiritual consequences, maybe even an unwanted pregnancy.

Lust is also the antithesis of commitment. It’s about the enjoyment of the moment, without regard to the future, and the long-term well-being of your partner. And if that partner no longer fulfils you, then the chances are you simply move on to someone else.

We may not talk about lust that often, but it’s something that we need take seriously. That’s why that Psalm so often quoted in Lent is so relevant to us today:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

May that be the prayer of us all. Amen.


Lent Blog Day 13 – Thinking about Marriage

March 19, 2014

If Lent is about engaging with God in order to re-engage with the wider world, then we need to be prepared to think through some of the big issues where we as believers are called to make a stand. One of these issues, and probably the one where Christians are most out of step with society, is the whole question of marriage.

There is a lot of debate at the moment about same-sex marriage. And most of the arguments have centred around same-sex activity and the Christian response to homosexuality in general. But as I was writing the material for tomorrow’s Bible Explored group, it struck me that what is at stake are really two different understandings of marriage. Here’s an edited version of what I wrote.

For Christians, marriage is part of the story of creation. It was an institution created by God to be the union of one man and one woman. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh”. This contains the idea of cleaving – sticking together through thick and thin – and forming a spiritual, sexual and social bond that is exclusive and for life. In the New Testament the picture of marriage is also used as a picture of the relationship between Christ and his church, a picture of Jesus’ exclusive and totally committed love for His people which we are called to reciprocate in pure devotion and total obedience. 

Unfortunately in the world at large marriage is now no longer seen in these terms. Marriage is considered to be about the personal choice of two individuals, who may decide to opt in or opt out of this arrangement as they see fit. This is why law is being rewritten in so many different ways , to allow for pre-marriage contracts when the individuals decide it’s time for the relationship to come to an end, or to permit same-sex couples to marry, because that’s their choice. It may be the reason why eventually churches will lose their role as registrars of marriage because there is such a different understanding between their own and society at large.

So the question is, how do we promote a Christian understanding of marriage in a world which uses the same word but means something completely different by it? That to me is the crucial question we need to address, if it is not too late to do so.


Something you need to read

July 18, 2013

This week the government’s bill on same-sex marriage received royal assent. If you are confused or unsure what this means for the church, then I can do no better than recommend you read the following briefing paper by the Evangelical Alliance. Take time to read it slowly, to pray about it, and if you have any questions, come back to me.

One thing is certain – from now on life is going to become increasingly uncomfortable for evangelical Christians, and we need to be ahead of the curve.